The Terminal Man

By Jason Wood

30 years on, Mike Hodges’ overlooked 1974 chiller remains prescient and troubling  

With the attention shown his latest film, pin-sharp noir I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, critics and audiences are re-assessing the work of British auteur Mike Hodges. The consensus? That there’s far more to Hodges than the seminal Get Carter. Not least 1974’s remarkable, and remarkably overlooked adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel The Terminal Man, in which a psychotic George Segal so enjoys the calming sensations caused by a computer implant designed to quell his violent impulses that he embarks on a murder spree to experience further treatment. It’s a superb, deeply pessimistic sci-fi thriller that has proved notably prophetic in a number of ways.

Jason Wood: It’s coming up for the 30th anniversary of the film, but with its look at how violence is controlled and individuals are manipulated by science and society, The Terminal Man still feels extremely prescient.

Mike Hodges: I tried, and hopefully succeeded, in creating a world that would override time and fashion. Initially I was scared. It was Warner’s policy in those days to embody writer/director/producer in one person and that’s what they did; their faith in the film-maker was absolute. I was also working in LA for the first time. I knew nobody, but turned this to my advantage. It brought me closer to understanding the loneliness and fear that Harry Benson, the film’s focal character, would experience on screen.

JW: I was frequently reminded of the paintings of Edward Hopper in the film’s evocation of this loneliness and alienation. Was he an influence?

MH: Yes, Edward Hopper did influence my thinking (if not the look) in making the film. There was/is a bookshop on Hollywood Blvd called Pickwick’s. Browsing in the art book section I saw a spine with his name on it, and pulled out this substantial volume of his work. I had never heard of Hopper then; nor had most people in the UK. Turning the pages I recognised that the loneliness, the sparseness of his work, was key to my thinking.

JW: How then did you arrive at the film’s extremely distinctive look?

MH: I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful production designer, Fred Harpman, who convinced me to build the hospital in a studio. Remember, until then, I had only worked on location. I felt more comfortable in real places. Once I went for it I was as happy as a sand boy. In the studio you have complete control over the way a film looks and sounds, and that’s a state I like to be in.

I had wanted to shoot the film in black-and-white but Warner’s baulked at the idea. So with Fred and my cameraman, Richard Kline, we managed to eliminate colours other than black, white, grey and flesh tones, introducing red for Benson’s first lethal attack and a mass of primary colours for his own demise at the end. It turned out better that way; although watching the puzzled executives waiting for those colours finally to arrive caused me great amusement.

JW: A key aspect of the film is Benson’s fear of machines and their manipulative power. This has surely become more relevant in an age increasingly reliant on new technologies.

MH: I share Benson’s fear of machines and their force; that’s the reason I accepted the job. Machines grow more and more seductive; we are now addicted to them. America puzzled me from the moment I went there in the mid 1960s. Its motivation was totally different from that in the UK of those days (but sadly no longer). But what was it? I began to realise it was a culture based heavily on addiction. The object of every manufacturer and advertiser was to make people become addicted to something, anything. Find the Achilles heel, exploit it! Hence Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and Hollywood Movies; all highly addictive.

That’s why no government will touch the motorist, despite the fact that the very future of our planet depends on restricting the use of cars. The withdrawal symptoms would be too painful politically. That clearly illustrates the depth of our addiction. And don’t let me start on machines used in surveillance. We don’t seem to realise that our lives are already gripped in the steely de-humanising equivalent of a totalitarian state. At the moment we see it as benign, but it won’t always be like that. One day we will all be ‘terrorists.’

JW: The film also raises serious moral considerations about the state’s right to use criminals for experimental purposes, with tests carried out more in the name of money and power than in the hope of providing a cure. These latter concerns appear constant throughout your body of work.

MH: Money and power are in the same bag. And, like teeth subjected to sugar, they rot. Decay and corruption travel in tandem with money and power. Never have we lived in times where this has become more transparent. Yes, all my films have been concerned with money, power, and corruption. What else is there to be concerned about?

JW: The film was never theatrically released in the UK and suffered badly in the US after disastrous test screenings. Gradually however, it has accumulated quite a reputation and I understand Terrence Malick is a fan. Are there plans to make the film more widely available?

MH: There are no plans, as far as I know. But its reputation is undoubtedly growing. And Warner’s recently let me excise one scene that always bugged me and was totally unnecessary. It was an attempt to make Benson more acceptable to audiences, giving them someone to root for, and failed miserably. Anyway, anybody who can’t empathise with Harry Benson in this film can’t be human. Maybe that’s what the film is really about, being human. As we remember it…

Jason Wood is a prolific writer, critic and filmmaker. He programmes London’s Other Cinema and has published a number of books on world cinema, most recently a wide-ranging survey of American Independent film, published by the BFI.